Why Does San Francisco Have So Many Golf Courses?

We at the Scratch Pad are big fans of the Priceonomics blog – a great source for well-written articles about data, economics, and business. They recently tackled the notion of golf courses per capita, and we were excited to share their post.

When this author moved to San Francisco, he was surprised to stumble on multiple golf courses. First a jog revealed the Golden Gate Park Golf Course. Bike rides along the Pacific coast led to the discovery of several more. Internet searches produced a final tally: nine courses in the city plus one more outside city limits that is under the city’s jurisdiction.

San Francisco’s golf courses are not located in the middle of downtown, but their existence remains jarring. The gold rush created San Francisco, but now the land itself is a treasure. The city is home to the country’s most expensive real estate market. Developers have started building “micro-apartments” to meet the insatiable demand for housing; in contrast, golf is a greedy hoarder of land. Eighteen hole golf courses occupy 100-200 acres and host a daily maximum of 200 to 400 golfers. At San Francisco’s current level of population density — which is low compared to cities like Manila and Mumbai but the highest of any major American city after New York — one hundred acres could provide housing for over 2,600 people.

Count is not perfect as some clubs may have multiple courses, and some courses are only 9 or 12 holes. As cities vary by size and density, this count is not the final word on an urban golf index. Help check our count by looking at the source data here.

Yet San Francisco is not exceptional. As the above chart shows, all of America’s large, densely populated cities have a significant number of golf courses. And if one includes courses just outside city limits in areas that are home to significant numbers of people who work and socialize in those cities, the number rises significantly. At a time when America’s wealthiest and most dynamic cities are so starved for space that low income residents are being pushed out, why are these cities home to so many golf courses?

Don’t Blame the Monopoly Man

This author’s look at how golf courses became prevalent in San Francisco, where Priceonomics is located, revealed a few answers — none of them shady deals that gave land to golf course developers instead of subsidized housing.

One simple reason for the prevalence of golf courses in such a dense city is simple inertia. Only two San Francisco golf courses were built after World War II; the rest were all originally constructed in the 19th or early 20th century in parts of San Francisco still being developed out of sand dunes. In 1895, for example, civilians received permission from the military to build the Presidio Golf Course on what was then an isolated military base. When two private clubs bought land for golf courses around Lake Merced in the 1920s, San Francisco’s population was 500,000 (compared to 825,000 today) and the lake mostly farmland and coastal military installations.

But the key to understanding San Francisco’s abundance of golf courses is noting that of its nine golf courses and clubs, the majority are public. The Recreation and Parks Department manages five courses (plus one more in nearby Pacifica), and while the Presidio Golf Club is private, it is located on public land and is open to the public.

So, San Francisco is not full of golf courses because made men shell out to play golf on America’s most valuable real estate. (After all, wealthy San Franciscans have nice cars they can drive to other courses.) Rather, San Francisco is full of golf courses because the city decided to devote green space to golf. As a result, playing 18 holes a few miles from downtown is relatively affordable; prices at the city’s public courses range from $22 to $66 for a resident. Writing about a group playing 18 holes at one public golf course, an SF Weekly journalist describes them as “a semiretired bookkeeper who plays in a blues band… a retired Oakland International Airport manager, and a construction foreman.”

A public affairs official at the Parks Department did not return our request for comment at the time of publication, but we can deduce a few reasons why San Francisco manages so many golf courses.

One is that golfers are a large and particularly vocal group. Before Parks and Rec makes any changes to a park, it seeks public comment. A 2008 report on San Francisco’s public golf courses estimated the number of city resident golfers at 81,050 (pdf), and those golfers seem to follow a national trend in which golfers have higher-than-average incomes and therefore more often mobilize to protect their interests. When the city hosted debate over changes to its golf courses in 2008, a blog post urged soccer players to attend meetings and demand more fields noting, “Only two people from our large and growing soccer community have attended the past meetings, while 80+ golfers made their voices heard.” This is especially true when wealthy families live across from a golf course and don’t take kindly to the idea of a neighboring course turning into a soccer field or events center.

Although we did not track down evidence of this as a motivating factor in San Francisco, one factor that has historically led towns and cities to build public golf courses is to generate revenue. In Landscape Architecture Magazine, Peter Harnik and Ryan Donahue write that golfing advocates could argue that golf courses were “a worthwhile public investment that subsidized a system’s other parks through green fees.” People can’t picnic or jog through public golf courses like they would other urban, green spaces; building golf courses in city parks essentially allows cash-constrained cities to cheat by building cash generating businesses and classifying it as public green space. Or, more generously, courses support the system by generating revenue for parks that everyone can use.

The $3 Million Golf Subsidy

The only problem is that for years, especially in San Francisco, public golf courses have drained the city’s coffers rather than replenished them. The aforementioned study, conducted by a consulting company hired by the city in response to criticism, noted that the city subsidized golf by $1.5 million a year. That was in 2008, and without policy changes, the report estimated that subsidy to increase to $3 million. It’s unclear whether that $3 million understates the subsidy by failing to include multimillion dollar course renovations.

San Francisco’s courses face the same problems that have hit golf courses across the country. In step with the real estate boom, America saw a surge of interest in golf and the building of many new courses. Between the recession and a bubble created by too much enthusiasm in the financial prospects of golf clubs, however, many courses aren’t getting that many golfers. As of 2008, only one of the courses managed by SF Park and Rec operated over 50% capacity. Public courses across the country are similarly under capacity and losingmoney.

The consultants’ report concluded that San Francisco’s public golf courses are poorly managed (they operate under several management models, but most are publicly run), and that they could earn the city money if leased to private management under 10-15 year contracts. Some local press responded that similar outsourcing arrangements failed to significantly increase profits when tried elsewhere; others dislike that private management would fire the current public employees and hire seasonal workers at lower wages. Most problematic is the fact that the report imagines private management investing millions to improve the courses so that they can compete with private ones. Large renovations would be funded with higher rates, which would make the courses expensive to use and a truly inaccessible part of the park system.

Should We Care?

San Francisco’s golf courses occupy over 700 acres of land, which equates to more than 2% of the real estate in a city with a high-profile anti-eviction and anti-gentrification movement where the building of any new building is bitterly contested.

But the city’s public golf courses could not be swapped out for condos or subsidized housing. Despite the seeming incongruence, San Francisco’s golf courses, which are mostly public and located in city parks, seem more relevant to battles over the use of green space than gentrification battles. The courses’ opponents are joggers, community gardeners, and soccer parents who want to transform public golf courses into jogging paths, vegetable patches, and playing fields.

To the extent that the surprising prevalence of golf courses in San Francisco has relevance to the city’s debates over gentrification, it’s likely as a reminder that the city’s small, constrained size — a commonly cited culprit for high rent prices — is not to blame. If San Francisco had the same population density as Manhattan, it could be home to around 3 million residents instead of its current 800,000. But in order to protect San Francisco from change, its residents have consistently voted for zoning laws that prevent developers from building taller commercial and residential buildings — even downtown. Similarly, a great public transport system could allow people to enjoy San Francisco’s employment opportunities and cultural capital while living outside the city limits, but the Bay Area Transport system has not “had a significant upgrade in San Francisco since 1976.”

All the rage over San Francisco’s rent prices and gentrification has failed to notice that 2% of its real estate is taken up by golf courses. That could be an oversight, but more likely it’s a fact that calls attention to what really matters in making the city more affordable.

20 Interesting Tee Markers

It’s true that anything small in sports can be branded. In Golf, tee markers are no exceptions. But this form of advertising is cute and not annoying – go through the below list of some interesting tee markers we came across.

Tee markers at the John Deere Classic

Hyundai Classic

Coca-Cola tee markers at The Tour Championship in Atlanta

Friendly's Classic (1995), Crestview C.C., Agawam, Mass

Tee markers at the FedEx St. Jude Classic

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Top 100 Courses: #25 Prairie Dunes Country Club

Continuing with our series from The Itinerant Golfer’s quest to play all top 100 American golf courses, The Scratch Pad is glad to bring you a profile of the 25th rated golf course in America, Prairie Dunes CC. Click here for other entries on this series click.

Location: Hutchinson, KS
Architect: Perry Maxwell/Press Maxwell
Year Constructed: 1937/1957
Played: October 9, 2010

Prairie Dunes perennially ranks in the Top 25 courses in the US and is a bit of a ‘hidden gem’ among golf nerds . . . well, as much of a hidden gem as you can be when you’re listed in the Top 25 every year.

Because of the golf course’s high ranking on most of the major lists, Prairie Dunes enjoys a very robust non-resident membership, creating an interesting dynamic at the club. On one hand you’ve got your local families who use the club for tennis, golf and swimming and on the other hand you’ve got your hard core golf aficionado crowd with their Pine ValleyCypress Point and National Golf Links logos bringing in groups of their friends on golf trips. I have to believe there are a number of local members who must scratch their heads and think “why on earth did this guy from New York City join our little club??” I also have to believe that the board of directors meetings get pretty interesting with two distinctly different member groups to serve – each of whom have a different set of needs.

The golf course at Prairie Dunes Country Club has quite an interesting story to it. Perry Maxwell was the first architect on the site who, in 1937, laid out the original nine hole course. The course remained this way for twenty years until his son, Press Maxwell, came along in 1957 to add nine more holes and make a full eighteen hole course. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as simple as just adding holes 10-18 to complete the course. The land that Press wanted to work with didn’t allow him to keep the original number sequence for the first nine holes so he ended up having to do a little renumbering. The original nine holes play today as 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 17, 18.

At first glance Prairie Dunes doesn’t appear terribly long but it only plays to a par of 70 so the tips that play 6,759 yards are a little longer than they appear. Since it was our first trip around the course we decided to play the 6,153 yard white tees which had a rating of 71.2. That rating translates to 1.2 strokes over par for a scratch golfer and is usually a sign that a course will play fairly tough.

The photo below was taken at the 1st tee. The first hole is a dogleg to the left that played 401 yards from the white tees. If you get too cute and try to go too far to the left there is a ton of rough over there waiting for your ball to nestle down into it. Take note of the brown native grass lining the hole. Out in Kansas they call this “gunsch” and it will swallow a golf ball up just as quick as water does.

The approach to the 1st green is pictured below. It takes a pretty lengthy and well placed drive to have a short iron into the green. Most of the guys in our group were hitting mid or long irons in.

Below is a closer look at the green. It really can’t be seen in this photo but this was a pretty severe green and could be very penal if your ball ends up in the wrong spot.

The 2nd hole is a fairly short par 3 that plays 142 yards from the white tees. The green sits at the top of a hill so a little extra club is necessary. The photo below was taken from the tee.
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Top 100 Courses: #7 Merion Golf Club (East Course)


Merion Golf Club (East Course)
Location: Ardmore, PA
Architect: Hugh Wilson
Year Constructed: 1912
Played: June 20, 2008

Merion Golf Club . . . so much history has happened here that a book could be written on that alone. With a current count of 17 USGA events having been contested over Merion’s East Course that is more than any other course in the United States. Bobby Jones’ first major was the 1916 US Amateur played here, he won the US Amateur here in 1924 and of course his historic US Amateur win for the Grand Slam in 1930. Ben Hogan executed a miraculous comeback to the game here at the 1950 US Open after a near death automobile accident just 1 year earlier. Lee Trevino defeated Jack Nicklaus in a dramatic 18 hole play off to become the US Open champion in 1971. As much great history as there is, the story is far from finished for Merion. The USGA will be coming back to Merion for the Walker Cup in 2009 and the US Open will return in 2013.

Until 1941 when the club changed it’s name to the current version the club was known as the Merion Cricket Club. There are two courses here, the West and the more famous East. The club was originally founded in 1896 and played on the original golf course in neighboring Haverford. In 1910 the members decided to build a new course and sent member Hugh Wilson, a Scottish immigrant, to Scotland and England for 7 months to study golf course design. He returned with a head full of ideas and proceeded to layout the East Course which opened in 1912 and then the West Course which opened in 1914. That is a pretty incredible turn around time for getting courses built considering that it was done without the help of modern machinery in those days. Another amazing feat is that the East Course covers just 126 acres which is nothing compared to other golf courses. Augusta National covers almost triple that acreage at 365. If you want to get a chance at playing a Hugh Wilson course you have very few options. The only other courses he designed besides Merion’s East and West are Cobb’s Creek and the last 4 holes of Pine Valley.
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Teeing off at the terminal


Finally, a solution to stressful and boring airport delays: a golf course at the terminal. Next time your business or vacation trip takes you through Hong Kong International Airport, stop by SkyCity Nine Eagles Golf Course, conveniently located outside one of the terminals. The nine-hole course has all the amenities of your country club back home, including floodlights at night and even a hole in the middle of a lake. Travelling light? You can rent everything you need to play a good game, like shoes, clubs, and caddies.

The Nine Eagles Course is a architectural feat. Not only designed to challenge, built it was also built to be eco-friendly and beautiful. The course achieves USGA standard with its gently rolling hills and abundant bunkering. It is made up of seven Par 3 holes and two Par 4 holes fit for beginners, experts, and everybody in between. The clubhouse brings together what you would expect at your club at home, including a pro-shop and changing room, with a taste of Asia. Enjoy traditional Thai fare by eating outside to savor both the tastes and views of the East.

Sold on this one of a kind travel experience? It’s affordable too. Playing Nine Holes (just enough time on a medium layover) will cost you US$50 on weekdays and US$70 on weekends.

War Hero Becomes Golf Inspiration

Mike Reeder, 63 years old, lost both of his legs in the Vietnam War. Instead of losing all hope after his accident which left him in a wheel chair, Reeder became an inspiration to golfers and non-golfers, alike. In 1988, eighteen years after his accident, Reeder found himself in a pro-shop and decided to pick up golfing. Since that day, Reeder has participated in amputee golf tournaments, both locally and nationally. He is an accomplished golfer, who has shot par, made a hole-in one, and has a golf handicap of less than ten.

Due to his one of a kind story, the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), which provides disabled individuals with opportunities to get involved with sports, granted Reeder the honor of being featured on ESPN’s E: 60. In July of this year, CAF funded Reeder’s dream of playing at the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, making him the first handicapped golfer to play where golf originated. Continue reading

The Old Course at St. Andrews: Respect Earned The Long Way

The game’s greatest players have all played St. Andrews at one point or another and it’s fascinating to see the stories each one has in developing respect for the birth place of golf.

In a Sports Illustrated interview in 1970, Jack Nicklaus knew what it took to fully understand the greatness of The Old Course:

A golfer must play [St. Andrews] at least a dozen times before he can expect to understand its subtleties. If a player becomes irritated at the bad bounces and unusual things that happen at St. Andrews, forget it.

Two of golf’s greatest players have made the mistake of becoming “irritated at the bad bounces and unusual things that happen at St. Andrews” and have paid for it mightily in pride and in the press. Continue reading

Top 100 Courses: #5 Cypress Point Club

Continuing our profile of The Itinerant Golfer’s quest to play all top 100 American golf courses, The Scratch Pad is glad to bring you a profile of the 5th rated golf course in America, Cypress Point Golf Club.

Cypress Point
Location: Pebble Beach, CA
Architect: Alister Mackenzie & Robert Hunter
Year Constructed: 1928
Played: April 15, 2008

I’ve just knocked my ball onto the green at perhaps the most famous hole in golf and my caddie has walked ahead while I enjoy the long walk to the green with my putter in hand. As I stroll around the path to the fairway watching the seals play in the inlet below I can’t help but get a little overwhelmed by the moment.

Anyone who is familiar with the great golf clubs of the world knows Cypress Point Club. Bing Crosby was a member and made the club famous by including it in his annual Crosby Clambake (regretfully renamed the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am) which was a regular tour stop until 1991 when the club elected to withdraw. Another member, Bob Hope, very famously stated in regards to the exclusivity of the club “One year they had a big membership drive at Cypress . . . they drove out 40 members”. The bottom line is that this place is one of the toughest tee times in the world to obtain.

Opened in 1928 Cypress Point is often referred to as Alister Mackenzie’s finest design. Mackenzie also designed Bobby Jones’ beloved Augusta National so that gives you an idea of the gravity of the statement that Cypress Point is Mackenzie’s finest work. The course is laid out in 3 groupings of holes. Holes 1 through 6 are woodland holes set in the midst of the cypress and pine trees. Holes 7 through 13 are dunes holes expertly laid out among the natural sand dunes. Finally holes 14 through 18 are seaside holes that test the mettle of even the best of players lucky enough to tee it up here.

My day at Cypress Point started early. I had the dew-sweeper tee time of 7:15 AM and I would be playing alone today. I play solo a lot at home so I’m used to playing my match against Old Man Par and often times prefer it. In retrospect, I think playing alone here made the round that much more special.
cypress point locker room
The guys in the pro shop directed me to the locker room where I could change shoes. It was one of those great old locker rooms where the benches have spike marks from years of shoe tying before the days of soft spikes and ghosts lurk around every corner. Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus . . . all the greats have laced their shoes up here. In a quick glance around the room I saw Clint Eastwood’s locker and Charles Schwab’s but I didn’t linger too long as I was anxious to get out on the course. The photo to the right is not real clear, but it shows the unusual locker design.

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Top 100 Courses: #17 Whistling Straits

We’re glad to welcome a new guest blogger at the Scratch Pad! The Itinerant Golfer profiles Steve’s quest to play all of the top 100 golf courses in America. You’ll get a chance to see a round in action, along with great photos of the holes on the course. We’re glad to have him with us, and will be sharing some of his best posts with you.

Whistling Straits
Location: Haven, WI
Architect: Pete Dye
Year Constructed: 1998
Played: June 11, 2009

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I headed to Wisconsin to play Whistling Straits. Despite its high ranking of #22 on the Top 100 list, I wasn’t overly excited to play it. From what I could tell about the course from my research on the internet and from watching events played there on TV it was probably not going to be my kind of course. I was hoping to be surprised.

Once I got outside of Milwaukee I was in rural Wisconsin and was thankful for my trusty GPS unit. Eventually I saw the Whistling Straits sign and turned into the driveway. As I wound my way around I was very pleasantly surprised to see that there was no colossal clubhouse or hotel. Instead it was just a modest little clubhouse built to look like an Irish Cottage. Whistling Straits Golf Course was designed to have the feel of an authentic Irish golf club. I’m feeling better about this already. The photo below (which I did not take) shows a great view of the clubhouse.

Herb Kohler of Kohler faucet fame built Whistling Straits. Kohler’s corporate HQ are just a driver and pitching wedge away from Whistling Straits. The American Club was actually not built by Herb Kohler, it was actually used by the Kohler Company to house the immigrant workers at the factory in the early years of the company, it was then renovated and turned into what is now a Five Diamond Resort. In addition to serving recreational golfers like me the course has also hosted events for both the PGA and USGA. The first major event to be held at the course was the PGA Championship in 2004 Continue reading